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Attorney Robert Driscoll Defends Client Maria Butina


Cast your minds back to the middle of the week, Wednesday, when a Russian national named Maria Butina was ordered to be held without bond pending trial. She says she's a political science student. The FBI says she was operating as a covert Russian agent. Her attorney, Robert Driscoll, joins us this morning. Mr. Driscoll, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT DRISCOLL: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Got to begin this way - you're a big-name D.C. lawyer with offices on Pennsylvania Avenue. If your client's really a simple student, who's paying your fee?

DRISCOLL: I don't discuss my arrangement with her, but rest assured that she's my client, and she's the one controlling the defense of this case.

SIMON: So you're getting orders from no one else. You're getting financial sustenance from no one else.

DRISCOLL: I'm getting orders from no one else, and I don't talk about my clients and money.

SIMON: Let me ask you, according to news reports, the FBI uncovered a trail of messages between Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. Now, he's the deputy head of the Russian Central Bank. He's got ties to Russian security services. Let me - a couple of messages that have been publicized. He compares your client to Anna Chapman, the prominent Russian agent who was arrested in 2010. She refers to herself in one of those messages as, quote, "underground" and there's an exchange where she sends a photo of herself at the Capitol on Inauguration Day. Mr. Torshin says, you're a daredevil, girl. What can I say? She responds, good teachers. Does this sound to you like a simple grad student?

DRISCOLL: I think that if that was all I knew, I might be skeptical, but I think if people know the whole story of their relationship, Alexander Torshin and Maria, they would understand. I mean, for starters, you're reading Twitter direct messages, which are unencrypted. I would imagine that Russian intelligence probably communicates in different ways than that. Mr. Torshin and Maria met in a gun rights group in Russia. Their relationship has nothing to do with his position. They are friends, and they have thousands of messages and pictures of dogs and questions about, you know, picking up American toothpaste and things like that. So they're two friends who have communicated over time. And just when you look at the context of her time here and what she did, they're not the activities of a spy.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the relationship between the NRA and your client. The Russian government - in Russia, they restrict citizens to just a shotgun after five years, I gather, of license to use than a hunting rifle. And yet Mr. Torshin and your client started a Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms, which brought them closer into the NRA. Is this really a movement in Russia, or was this, as some people have suggested, just an attempt to penetrate the NRA and get close to the Trump administration and influential Republicans?

DRISCOLL: I know from Maria's perspective she was starting a movement. She wrote an essay on the topic in addition to essays on other conservative topics and then founded the group. And the group existed for, I think, over a year before she even met Alexander Torshin. And gun rights in Russia obviously are not the same as gun rights here, nor could they ever be. And I think Maria recognized that. Their focus was more on self-defense and the ability to use guns in response to crime. Clearly, they were not foolish enough to, you know, have a gun rights theory of arm the citizens against the tyranny of the government because that would get you thrown in jail in Russia.

SIMON: Yeah.

DRISCOLL: So it was more of a regulatory type of thing with self-defense, castle doctrine, things like that that we've had in this country for a long time that they were trying to get put in Russia. And they had some success, if not overwhelming success.

SIMON: Why the relationship with the NRA? What kind of advice and counsel could the NRA possibly give them? Because, as you point out, we've got two different systems.

DRISCOLL: Right. Well, I think that from Maria's perspective she invited gun rights organizations from all over the world to Moscow at one point for a conference on gun rights. And I think that she envisioned growing her group large in Russia the same way the NRA became a political force in the United States. And she was more than happy when she invited NRA folks to come to Russia that they came and then it was reciprocated. So she's been to a few NRA conferences with Alexander Torshin. And the NRA leadership came over a couple of different times to Russia. And so I think that's simply, you know, like-minded groups seeing how the other half lives, so to speak.

SIMON: And in summation to the best of your knowledge, your client has no particular relationship with the Russian government other than being a citizen.

DRISCOLL: No. And I think that unfortunately - I mean, I get it because I consume popular media. I think our minds fill in lots of things when you see a tall redhead with a Russian accent. But I'd leave you with this image - her phone cover that she had as a grad student in America had a picture of Putin on a horse shirtless. It strikes me that if one were actually an FSB agent or something like that that kind of comedy about the president of Russia really wouldn't be - wouldn't - really wouldn't be coming from an FSB agent. And I think, in the end, she'll be proven innocent in this case.

SIMON: Robert Driscoll is representing Maria Butina. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Driscoll.

DRISCOLL: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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